Growth of middle class stokes demand for U.S. apples
By DAN WHEAT
WENATCHEE, Wash. -- Some 35 years after the fall of Saigon, the name Vietnam still conjures up mixed feelings for many Americans.
But it's increasingly a positive for Washington apple growers.
Vietnamese consumers eat a lot of Chinese apples, but the nation's expanding middle class is eating more Washington apples.
Sales began in 2000 and in the 2003-04 sales season grew to 75,171 boxes. Last year, it grew to 308,069. This season, as of Jan. 15, 337,431 boxes had been shipped and Washington Apple Commission President Todd Fryhover expects the season to top 400,000. That's a 35 percent increase, he said.
"The middle class is buying our apples over China's because ours are perceived as healthier," Fryhover said. "We focus at retail to the middle and upper income. We're taking the higher-end consumer away from China."
His goal is to make Vietnam a 700,000-box market in five years.
Fryhover visited commission promotional representatives in Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia Jan. 3-14.
Vietnam once paid a premium for small Gala apples, Fryhover said. In recent years, it's still buying Gala, plus Granny Smith, Fuji, Red Delicious and Rome. It also now wants small and large fruit.
"The interesting thing for me going to that market was the attitude," Fryhover said. "They were happy and enjoying the quality Washington provides. They were looking to increase their shipments."
A commission representative based in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon, does trade promotions with importers and wholesalers and consumer promotions, including point-of-purchase displays and samplings, with retailers.
Fryhover said he found the same positive attitude among importers, wholesalers and retailers in Indonesia, which bought 1.8 million boxes of Washington apples last year and as of Jan. 31 was 73.5 percent ahead of a year ago.
"There is a willingness to try new varieties and it's driven by a strong wholesale market to roadside stands and small shops," he said.
Indonesia is still very heavily into Red Delicious but now is taking 13 Washington varieties, he said.
Thailand and Malaysia are more mature markets and not growing as rapidly as Indonesia and Vietnam.
Thailand bought 774,073 boxes of Washington apples last year after buying half of that six years earlier. Malaysia and Singapore bought 590,347 in the 2009-2010 season, down from 1 million the year before. It's more volatile because of French competition, Fryhover said. So far this year, Malaysia is up 37 percent over last year, he said.